Serving Crazy with Curry has one of those India-for-dummies covers. You know, spices! Dangly tinkly gold jewelry! A veil-draped golden-skinned, luscious-lipped woman! But when it comes to South Asian fiction, judge not a book by its appearance. The average publisher’s Pavlovian response upon hearing “India” and “woman writer” is to slap on this sort of empty exotica on the cover with scant consideration for what lies beneath; I usually just read the book.
Devi Veturi has lost yet another Silicon Valley job, is in debt, and can’t pay the rent. She’s a serial failure when it comes to relationships, and she’s recently suffered a miscarriage. Devi decides to commit suicide, and she’d have succeeded if not for her mother Saroj walking into her apartment unannounced.
Devi’s family gathers around her in shock, but she refuses to explain her actions or speak a word. Instead, she moves in with her parents and starts cooking, serving up a series of West-meets-India dishes such as rasam with puff pastry and Cajun prawn biryani. As the family waits for Devi to start talking, they begin to confront their own failures. Matters come to a head with Devi’s parents, who have been distant for years, while her sister’s married life begins to unravel. Even Devi’s grandmother Vasu isn’t spared the self-recrimination. Imagine the fallout when Devi gets around to speaking.
My main issue with Serving Crazy with Curry is that this book didn’t quite seem to know what it was. It’s written in a jaunty, if occasionally labored, chick lit-ish tone (“…Saroj watched, in wide-eyed horror, as her fridge and spice cabinet went from neat and tidy to something completely the opposite “), and borrows several elements from the genre. Chick-lit can be appealing–if the characterizations are detailed, if the stereotypes are kept to a minimum, if the predictable happy ending is served with panache, and, most vitally, if the author acknowledges the essential absurdity of the materialistic, self-obsessed heroines dominating this genre. But Serving Crazy… takes itself seriously, seeking to explore themes such as the pressures of motherhood, the cultural scripts of Indian immigrants in America, and much more. Malladi writes with sympathy and fluency, but doesn’t offer any new insights, and her prose is just not up to the task of providing the ballast these issues demand. And the mold for the secondary characters was cast a century ago. Melodramatic Indian mom looking to see her daughters happily settled. A distant father. The overachiever with an unhappy personal life. I mean, please.
There is a great story lurking in Serving Crazy…, but it’s not Devi’s. Vasu, Devi’s grandmother, was a doctor in the Indian armed forces; how I wish Malladi had elaborated on this woman’s experience in a hyper-masculine institution. Vasu divorced her abusive husband at a time when most Indians believed that a divorced woman was the devil’s special friend. Vasu realized a forbidden love, and reckoned the social cost cheap in the process. Devi is just blah in comparison.
Furthermore, I questioned why, exactly, Devi found self-expression in cooking rather than any other medium.
“…There were no arguments here. This was sacred land. Her mind could wander on all sorts of possibilities here and she wouldn’t have to worry about where she ended up. Anything was possible and anything as acceptable, as long as she kept her mind confined to food and cooking.”
Substitute painting for cooking, and all this would still hold. Yes, Devi could have just as easily taken up bungee jumping or gotten a tattoo instead of turning to the kitchen, for there isn’t enough of a backstory to give her new passion enough credibility. Malladi’s explanation– that Devi had always been interested in cooking but Saroj didn’t like her kitchen messed up—sounded glib to me; after all, Devi has an apartment and kitchen of her own, and she hasn’t cared to cook there.
At the end of the book, Malladi includes an imagined conversation she has with the characters.
Amulya: I have to know, why the cooking?
Devi: I’d like to know as well. Since you wrote it in, why don’t you tell me?” [I wanted to kill Devi right here. Just saying.]
Amulya: … I think you started cooking all that fusion cuisine because you wanted to do something that was different, yet you wanted to hold on to what was. You wouldn’t speak, so you used food as a communicating medium. You expressed your feelings though it, joy, fear, boredom, all of that.
Devi: You mean, since I stopped speaking as a result of my traumatic experience, I had to do something, and cooking was it?
Amulya: …the kitchen had always been Saroj’s domain and your trying to take that domain away from her was a subconscious effort on your part to tell her that you can control your life since you can control her kitchen…
I found the above damning–it’s almost a tacit admission that Malladi didn’t explain her characters’ motivations sufficiently in the text itself. And it still doesn’t tell us why she chose cooking rather than another medium; I’m left to believe that the author picked a hook she knew would be popular and easy-to-market. That said, the recipes (provided for the dishes Devi cooks) are interesting. I’m going to make Malladi’s apricot-ginger-mint chutney, which I plan to have with baked brie. Sadly, I’m pretty sure the meal will be the best thing about this book.
Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi
Random House 2004